NEW YORK — Let’s start with the optimistic part first, because there’s a lot of not-so-pretty stuff that’s going to follow. Kentucky has a dozen chances left on its schedule to prove it’s a high-level basketball team, so it’s not like Saturday’s putrid offensive performance in a 63-53 loss to UCLA is destined to cost the Wildcats something bigger down the road.
What transpired here inside Madison Square Garden could be merely one bad loss, paving room for redemption in the weeks and months to come. There is that possibility.
That in mind, let’s deal in reality a week out from Christmas. Here’s where the 13th-ranked Wildcats stand after losing in the CBS Sports Classic to No. 16 UCLA.
- They’re 7-3 and don’t have a win over a top-50 opponent (per multiple predictive metrics)
- The losses to good teams are none UK would/could try to claim moral-victory status over: in double-OT to Michigan State, by 16 points against Gonzaga, Saturday’s pallid performance vs. UCLA
- The offense is regressing — aggressively
Sure, there will be the inevitable destruction of lowly Louisville coming in less than two weeks, and one more big nonconference opportunity will land in January when UK hosts Kansas in the final go-round of the SEC-Big 12 Challenge. Thanks to the SEC having an especially strong upper third of teams, Kentucky is going to have time and opportunity to strengthen its résumé. And it’s better.
Because John Calipari cannot seem to get himself out of criticism’s way.
More reality: Calipari entered this season under more scrutiny than he’d ever experienced as a college coach. Kentucky was a nine-win team two seasons ago, one of the worst years in the storied history of Big Blue Nation. Flatly unacceptable, COVID-impacted season or not. The Cats bounced back last season, getting a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a Naismith National Player of the Year performance out of Oscar Tshiebwe … only for that to be blown up by Saint Peter’s in the first round.
This brought urgency to Calipari’s office in a way he’d never experienced before. It’s not that his job is in danger. Of course it’s not. But Kentucky fans hold their coach accountable as much, if not more, than any other base in college sports. Ten games in, it’s hard to say there’s a lot to feel cheery about. Kentucky continues to stumble against legitimate competition. A 7-3 record with the caveat of that mark including a 1-3 record against power-conference programs is not going to cut it.
Calipari talked up his team’s offensive prowess in the preseason. There was a believable promise there. He recruited to improve UK’s offensive blueprint. However, to this point, that proclamation is spotty at best. The Wildcats only managing 53 points against a good UCLA team playing three time zones away from where it will celebrate Christmas is alarming.
The Cats looked incompetent on offense, and that falls squarely on Calipari. In fact, Kentucky hadn’t performed this poorly, offensively, since its infamous and historically abysmal showing against UConn in the 2011 Final Four.
“You can’t go 5 for 13 from the line, not in a game like this,” Calipari said. “You can’t go four front end one-and-ones, so really you’re 5 for 17. You don’t have to make every free throw, but you can’t go those numbers.”
Kentucky’s offense was so poor, it dropped form 19th to 28th at KenPom.com in a matter of two hours.
Bruins coach Mick Cronin seemed to be loving it.
“It became a bloodbath,” he said. “At some point that became a Big East game. Back in the Garden, it was great to be back.”
One man’s fiasco is another man’s Picasso. Calipari tried to spin it afterwards. Give him this: He’s as willing to show optimism in the face of incontrovertible evidence as much as any coach in the game.
“We miss so many open shots, it becomes demoralizing, and the crazy thing is we still could have won the game,” he said.
Kentucky did cut it to a two-point difference with 4:31 to go. Then UCLA turned off the water and it was goodnight. Kentucky never scored again. UCLA was tougher, more confident. It won by 10 points and deserved that double-digit margin. Kentucky is lost offensively and still doesn’t have lineup answers nearly a third of the way into the season. With this much veteran presence, that’s a red flag. Jacob Toppin is not the breakout player that was promised. CJ Frederick, the 3-point shooter this team needs, scored zero points in six minutes. Antonio Reeves floated in and out of the flow of the game all evening.
The offense needs a jolt, and against physical teams with size and experience, Calipari is still searching for answers.
“We have good shooters,” Calipari said. “We’re one of the better 3-point shooting teams, and we missed.”
Not entirely true. In fact, the good shooting might be some fools’ gold to this point. Against the four high-major teams Kentucky has faced this season, it has gone 1-3 and only scored better than 1.0 points per possession in one of those games, its 73-69 win over Michigan. On Saturday, it was a rotten 0.79 PPP. From 3-point range against Michigan State, Michigan, Gonzaga and UCLA, Kentucky shot a combined 29.1% (25 for 86.)
There’s a stagnation. There’s a predictable halt of motion late in games. It seems like good teams are able to figure Kentucky out, and without a dynamic alpha scorer on the roster, it puts a ceiling on Kentucky’s creativity. I didn’t expect this; in early November, I picked the Wildcats to win the national title. There’s little to suggest that’s possible with this team.
“We’re not a bad free-throw shooting team. We were today,” Calpari said.
Objectively not true at this point. With a 10-game sample size, Kentucky ranks 304th nationally on a 66.3% success rate from the foul line.
“That stuff is contagious,” Calipari said. “When you watch one guy miss and the next guy misses and you get up and it’s in your mind, that’s part of it.”
I’m not here to declare Kentucky’s season is over. If anything, it hasn’t really started. UK can’t get out of third gear against good teams most of the time. Calipari’s had projects over the years that have taken two months or more to figure out, but that wasn’t supposed to be the way with this team, which isn’t reliant on a heavy subset of freshmen. Instead, Kentucky looks a long way from the preseason top-five team it was billed to be. When’s that team going to show up? Calipari might claim to have that answer, but even if so, it would be hard to believe him at this point.